Over the past eight years, the signature element of the Obama administration’s conduct of the war on al-Qaeda has been increased drone strikes against the organization’s leaders. These, according to officials, have degraded it to the edge of defeat. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross calls this view into question, citing, among other things, complaints from the U.S. Central Command over political pressure to produce rosy evaluations of the wars against al-Qaeda and Islamic State. (Interview by the Cipher Brief.)
[I]f one looks at the number of countries that violent, non-state actors have brought to ruin or have cleaved apart, it’s rather alarming. They range from Mali to Libya to Yemen, to Iraq and Syria—none of which was on fire in this way at the beginning of President Obama’s watch.
So what went wrong? Obviously, not all of this can be attributed to the president’s policies. . . . But we can reasonably criticize the decision to intervene in Libya. That’s where things really went off the rails. The Libya intervention ended up creating more regional chaos, at a time when there were already governments being overthrown in Egypt and Tunisia. Libya has remained a jihadist hotbed since Muammar Qaddafi’s fall, and the war there directly led to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) takeover of northern Mali, which is of course connected to the jihadist insurgency that exists there today. . . .
[Another] thing I would point to is that the Obama administration’s evaluation of the decline of al-Qaeda’s core was, in my judgment, not correct. Therefore, I believe that counterterrorism policy has often proceeded from a mistaken set of assumptions. . . .
[Al-Qaeda] clearly has been damaged, but the broader question is how much did this damage weaken it overall? Al-Qaeda’s core leadership is meant to be resilient in the face of attrition. Obviously, whenever senior leaders are taken out and someone like bin Laden is killed, there is a degree of weakening. But I’m skeptical that it was weakened as much as popular conception holds.